Former Manchester Public Works Director Brent Carter has filed a lawsuit against the City of Manchester for violation of the First Amendment, the Tennessee’s Public Employee Political Freedom Act (PEPFA), and for deprivation of property without due process.
According to PEPFA, it’s unlawful for any public employer to discipline or discriminate against an employee because the employee exercised his or her right to communicate with an elected official.
Carter became the director of Public Works in 2006, being promoted to this position after the previous director was indicted for theft in connection with the job, according to the lawsuit.
Lonnie Norman was elected for mayor of Manchester City in 2012.
Carter alleges that Norman was pressuring him to “buy local,” which meant “spending the City’s tax money on businesses that were politically connected to Mayor Lonnie Norman and his friends — as opposed to shopping for whichever business offered the best price,” Carter claims.
Whenever Norman became aware Carter had purchased supplies at a rival business instead of a politically connected business, he would call up Carter and order him to “buy local,” according to the lawsuit. Norman also pressured Carter not to speak with other elected officials. Carter was threatened that he would be fired if he spoke with an alderman about any decisions.
In August 2018, Carter communicated with Alderman Cheryl Swan about the illegal “buy local” policy. “After seeing an enormous stack of receipts devoted to businesses connected with the mayor, Swan agreed with Carter about the “buy local” policy, saying "This is too much. Y'all need to spread the love." according to the lawsuit.
Several months later on Dec. 03, 2018, Norman called Carter into his office without warning, giving Carter the option of either accepting a demotion, or being fired. Faced with the ultimatum, Carter accepted the demotion, effective on Dec. 04, 2018.
The demotion ended his position as Public Works director, and sent him to a lower-level position in the sewer department. The demotion involved a pay cut, from $67.999.88 per year to $41,121.60 per year.
The lawsuit alleges that by retaliating against Carter for speaking out on matters of apparent corruption within the city, the City of Manchester violated his “First Amendment rights to speak freely and to petition his government for redress of grievances.”
By threatening to fire the plaintiff outright, and then by choosing to demote him instead, in retaliation for his acts of speaking to an elected official, the City of Manchester violated PEPFA, according to the lawsuit.
Additionally, by depriving Carter of his vested sick time without cause and without any procedural protections, the City of Manchester deprived him of property without due process and in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, according to the lawsuit.
Carter is seeking back pay and front pay, including loss of retirement and health benefits and compensatory time off; Nominal, compensatory, and punitive damages; Attorney’s fees; Treble damages.
Carter is represented by attorney Drew Justice. Gerald Ewell serves as Manchester City’s attorney.
The lawsuit was filed in the Eastern District of Tennessee Court Nov. 13.
"Due to pending litigation I am unable to comment on the specifics of the complaint," Norman said. "It is the city’s position that we will vigorously defend the allegations in the complaint."